night of the year, pilgrims climb to the mountain-top Saidnaya
monastery church for a vespers service. Built 1,500 years ago, for
many in the Middle East it is a site second in importance only to
Jerusalem. Inside the ancient Orthodox church with its golden icons,
a priest monk blesses the pilgrims with a censor as the men bob
up and down on prayer carpets. The women kiss icons in veneration,
and light candles in prayer. This is a familiar scene, one played
out in Orthodox churches all around the world. Only here there is
one notable exception. At this church, located about 25 km north
of Damascus, most of the pilgrims on any given night are heavily-bearded
Muslim men, usually accompanied by their shrouded wives.
Syria – target of American sanctions, junior member of the "Axis of Evil,"
repressive dictatorship, and the best nation in the Middle East
in which to live if you are a Christian.
in Syria is ancient. A Christian community was already firmly established
in Damascus within a few decades of Christ's resurrection. St. Paul
was traveling there to carry out persecution of Christians when
Jesus Himself appeared to him. Throughout Byzantine times, and well
into the era of Islam, Damascus was a center of Christian learning
and scholarship. The writings of such Syrian divines as St. John
of Damascus helped define the Christian faith, and are still required
reading in seminaries throughout the world.
Christians in Syria comprise approximately 8–10% of the population,
an estimated 1.3 million people. The majority of them are Eastern
Orthodox Christians under the Patriarchate of Antioch. The historic
city of Antioch, where followers of Jesus Christ were first called
Christians, is actually physically located inside modern day Turkey.
However, the Patriarchate fled U.S. ally Turkey in the 1930's in
order to find greater freedom in Syria, a nation the U.S. considers
does not recognize Islam as the state religion, unlike almost all
other states of the Middle East. Proselytizing is not illegal. The
website, International Christian
Concern, reports that no government sponsored acts of religious
persecution have been witnessed in Syria, and that no prisoners
are being held because of their Christian beliefs. Syrian identity
cards do not list religion, a fact that makes Christians feel more
secure here than elsewhere in the Middle East. Major Christian celebrations
such as Christmas and Easter are official national holidays. State-run
television channels even run Christmas programs. Unlike other Middle
Eastern nations in which public Christian displays are banned, each
Easter hundreds of thousands of Christians take to the streets of
Damascus for joyous processions. On any given Sunday, more Christians
are at worship in Syria than in such formerly Christian nations
populations have been on the decline for decades throughout the
Middle East. In the last 20 years alone, discrimination and persecution
have driven two million Christians to seek new lives for themselves
in Europe and the United States. Many towns and villages that were
once overwhelmingly Christian within living memory are now virtually
Christian-free. Only Syria has bucked this trend. Syrian Orthodox
Metropolitan of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Ibrahim, told
journalist William Dalrymple, "Christians are better off in
Syria than anywhere else in the Middle East. Other than Lebanon,
this is the only country in the region where a Christian can really
feel the equal of a Muslim. If Syria were not here, we would be
finished. It is a place of sanctuary, a haven for all Christians:
for the Nestorians driven out of Iraq, the Syrian Orthodox and the
Armenians driven out of Turkey, even the Palestinian Christians
driven out by the Israelis."
Is Syria So Special?
combination of two factors has created the relatively happy situation
for Christians in Syria. First, the ruling of party of Syria is
The ideological founder of this party, whose name is Arabic for
"rebirth," was Michel
Aflaq, a native of Syria and a staunch Christian. The main
objectives of the Ba'ath Movement, as envisioned by such
thinkers as Aflaq, were secularism, socialism, and pan-Arab unionism.
These objectives are summed up in the party slogan, "Unity,
regimes have made use of Aflaq's ideology, one in Syria and the
other in Iraq. Neither has lived up to his dream. Aflaq was both
a strident defender of human rights and a tireless champion of the
poor. However, both wings of the Ba'ath Party have maintained
his relentlessly secularist orientation. It is that ideological
umbrella which provides the cover under which Syrian Christianity
addition to Ba'ath ideology, the ethnic composition of Syria's
ruling elite encourages policies of tolerance. General Hafez al-Assad
took control of Syria in a 1970 coup. Assad was an Alawite,
a Muslim minority that is despised by Sunni Muslims as heretical.
Orthodox Muslims often deride Alawites as "little Christians."
As the Alawite liturgy seems to be at least partly Christian
in origin, this barb probably contains at least some truth.
to Assad's coup, Sunni Muslims had ruled Syria for 1,400 years.
The new dictator quickly reversed the long-standing pecking order
within Syrian society that had kept Sunnis at the top for so long.
In the new Syria, Assad organized the religious minorities, including
the Christians, into a bulwark against the Sunnis. The Sunnis, to
say the least, were somewhat disturbed by this. The Muslim Brotherhood,
a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim organization, actually declared a
jihad against the Assad regime in 1976, after Syria intervened
in the Lebanese Civil War on the side of the Christians. The Assad
regime eventually crushed the Brotherhood in 1982, killing over
10,000 Sunnis in their heartland of Hama. Ever since, Muslim fundamentalism
has been ruthlessly kept in check.
Assad died in 2000. Towards the end of his life, five of his seven
closest advisors were Christians. His successor and son, 34-year-old
Bashar al-Assad, has largely continued his father's governing policies.
Despite his relative youth, the junior Assad has shown indications
of being a talented man and good head of state. But he is also an
embattled leader who faces serious opposition from abroad, fueled
primarily by his regime's continued support of Palestinian resistance
groups, and Syria's continued occupation of Lebanon.
in the Cross Hairs
primary antagonists are the U.S. and Israel. In October 2003, Israel
staged an air
attack on Syria in retaliation for a suicide bombing in Haifa.
At the end of 2003, the U.S. enacted a sanctions protocol. The result
of these moves, so the Bush and Sharon Administrations hope, will
be a great Jeffersonian democracy akin to the success story unfolding
in nearby Iraq. In an article published by National Review Online,
Oubai Shahbandar, the U.S. spokesman for the Reform
Party of Syria, stated exactly what the U.S. and Israel are
"American and European policymakers must make it clear
to the current Syrian dictatorship that there can be only two choices:
capitulate to the will of the Syrian people and let a new democratic,
free Syria emerge or face the humiliation suffered by your fellow
Baathist neighbors in Iraq."
further the Bush Administration goal of fostering "a change
The Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act
of 2003 was passed with overwhelming support in both the House and
the Senate. The officially stated goals of this law are: “To halt
Syrian support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, stop
its development of weapons of mass destruction, cease its illegal
importation of Iraqi oil and illegal shipments of weapons and other
military items to Iraq, and by so doing hold Syria accountable for
the serious international security problems it has caused in the
Middle East, and for other purposes.”
act bans all transfers of “dual-use” technology to Syria. In addition,
the act recommends a wide range of sanctions against Syria, including:
reducing diplomatic contacts with Syria, banning U.S. exports (except
food and medicine) to Syria, prohibiting U.S. businesses from investing
or operating in Syria, restricting the travel of Syrian diplomats
in the United States, banning Syrian aircraft from operating in
the United States, and freezing Syrian assets in the United States.
The act obligates the executive branch to enact at least two of
the recommended sanctions, but does permit the president to waive
the sanctions if it is determined that they would harm U.S. national
act was hailed by hawks in both the U.S. and Israel. The Christian
Coalition ranked its passage as one of its major legislative victories
in the 108th Congress. There has also been, of course,
the inevitable talk of military action against Syria, should the
act fail to induce the desired effects. Richard Perle, for one,
that there are troops to spare in Iraq that can occupy Syria in
short order. So far, however, the Bush Administration has downplayed
the military option.
the remaining leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, living in exile
for the past 20 years in London, are also calling for a democratic
Iraq. Prior to the visit of Pope John Paul II to Syria in 2001,
the group published a statement
that proclaimed, “The utmost that any political group can do is
to take its place on the national map according to the size it is
given by its actual popularity through the free and honest ballot
boxes.” It seems that Muslim fundamentalists have no objection to
free elections they expect to win.
for freedom and democracy sound innocent enough to Americans, for
whom these two words are practically synonyms. However, trying to
forcibly implant such notions in a religiously fractious society
such as Syria is a recipe for disaster, particularly for the Christians.
Under the Assad regime, Christians have enjoyed religious and cultural
freedom unparalleled in the Middle East. As critics charge, Syria
is indeed a one-party police state totally bereft of political freedoms.
However, it is precisely because of the strict control the regime
keeps over the political life of the country that it can extend
security and freedom of worship to religious minorities. A democratic
system would bring to power a Sunni-dominated government that would
be far less accommodating to Christians, and could usher in a round
of genocide unimaginable in scale.
is precisely for this reason that religious minorities in Syria,
the Christians above all, fear that current U.S. policy in the Middle
East will bring down the Assad regime. The founding of a de facto
Kurdistan in Northern Iraq has already rocked the Assad regime by
among Syria's Kurds. Many analysts suspect that these riots may
have even been actively organized by outside forces. In addition,
international isolation is likely to only increase the pressure
on an already weak Syrian economy. If things continue in this vein,
Assad's grip on power could lessen, paving the way for his acceding
to hard-line Sunni demands for a more religious state, or even his
is true that problems with Syria do exist. In contrast to its tolerance
of minorities at home, the record of the Syrian regime in its occupation
of Lebanon has been decidedly mixed. Since intervening to stop the
Lebanese Civil War in 1976, Syria has pursued a strategy of "divide
and conqueror" as a method of control. Thus, Syria has, at some
point, cultivated alliances with almost every faction in that tortured
country's religious conflict. This has caused a great deal of pain
among Lebanese Christians, many of whom chafe under continued Syrian
dominance of their country. It is also true that Syria provides
some measure of assistance to groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas,
who are currently fighting Israel. (Syria has no link to any organization
that has ever attacked the United States. Osama Bin Laden will get
no support from Damascus.)
given the shortcoming of the Assad regime, it is impossible at this
time to envision how imposing democracy on Syria could improved
the situation. After all, if one wishes to know how a more "democratic"
Syria would turn out, one only has to look next door to Iraq for
Basra University, menacing groups of men have been stopping
cars at the university gates and haranguing women whose heads are
uncovered, accusing them of violating Islamic law. Even Christians
have started wearing headscarves out of fear, something that never
happened under Saddam Hussein's regime. Organized into armed militias,
Muslim fanatics roam the streets of Basra, waging a campaign of
fear to enforce Muslim law. Christian alcohol vendors have been
gunned down in their shops, and others have had their shops destroyed.
Christians throughout Iraq report
confiscations of property, kidnapping of family members for ransom,
and violent attacks on homes. Christian churches operate only during
daylight hours out of fear, and many Christians stay away altogether.
make matters worse, the compromise Transitional
Administrative Law has actually gone far towards officially
establishing Islamic rule in what was once a secular country. Article
7 states, in part, that "Islam is the official religion of
the State and is to be considered a source of legislation. No law
that contradicts the universally agreed tenets of Islam, the principles
of democracy, or the rights cited in Chapter Two of this Law may
be enacted during the transitional period. This Law respects the
Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people and guarantees
the full religious rights of all individuals to freedom of religious
belief and practice." Given the fact that many of these requirements
are contradictory, most Christians fear
that Islamic law will become the source of power in the new Iraq.
Christian groups have characterized
the Bush Administration’s policies in Iraq as a “treacherous conspiracy.”
It is very possible that this treachery will lead to the extinction
of one of the world’s oldest Christian nations in its own homeland.
Despite repeated calls for help by Iraqi Christians, loyalty to
the Bush Administration and devotion to Israel have kept the Christian
community within the United States largely silent.
up the situation, one Christian merchant told an AP reporter, “No
one can say things under Saddam Hussein were good in Iraq, but now
with the situation we are in now, we look back on them as perfect.”
Call to Action and Prayer
newly "liberated" Syria would look no prettier than does the newly
"liberated" Iraq. For this reason, it is imperative that Americans,
particularly Christian Americans, take notice of the plight
of our brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq. First, we must pray
fervently for the safety of Syrian and Iraqi Christians. Second,
the Bush Administration must hear from us loudly and clearly. We
must find our voices to cry out on behalf of those who cannot speak
reckless bluster directed at Syria must end immediately along with
all U.S. sanctions. At the same time, the Bush Administration must
stop building the Islamic Republic of Iraq, and immediately find
a way to provide for the security of Christians living in that badly
destabilized country. The consequences of failing to hold George
Bush accountable for his catastrophic policies could be dire. Christians
in United States cannot remain silent. If we do, then we are guilty
of shedding the Blood of Christ just as surely as if we had hammered
the nails ourselves.
Chancy [send him mail]
is a graduate of the University of Florida with a degree in Political
Science, and a certificate in Eastern European Studies. A former
University lecturer in Poland, he currently holds an MBA in Finance
and works in Orlando, Florida as a business analyst for an international